Why I Walked Away From a $500,000 Salary That Was On the Horizon

BY BRANDON VAGNER, CPA, Ph.D., & WALLET WIT FOUNDER

Walking away from huge financial opportunities can be life defining, and it certainly was for me. I’m so incredibly happy with the choice I made, but it was extremely hard at the time. Within this article, I’m going to take you through my story of when I walked away from an incredible career path and earnings potential. I’ll then elaborate more on some things you should consider if you find yourself in a situation where your upward movement just doesn’t align with your ultimate career goals.

It’s very easy to get stuck in the grind and lose sight of what your true passions are. I hope my story helps a few people make their own leaps of faith.

Where it All Started & the Opportunity

I grew up in a small town of less than 5,000 people, but after college and in my early 20’s I got on the big city corporate grind at one of the largest accounting firms in the world.

For those that don’t know the world of Big-4 public accounting, it has many challenges and is extremely difficult to make it to Manager and on your way to Partner. Going into the job, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do 10-15 years down the road. I had given thought to becoming a professor and helping people achieve their dreams; I had visions of possibly aspiring to be a CFO; and I even gave thought to running my own business.

During my time at this accounting firm, I put my head down and worked my tail off on some of the largest jobs in our office. My hard work and knack for accounting was recognized early and eventually I was promoted to Manager. If I recall correctly, my start class at this large accounting firm was around 20 people, but there were only about 3 or 4 of us who ended up making it to Manager. It’s very tough to do.

Shortly after being promoted, I started having thoughts of wanting to pursue my Ph.D. with the thought of getting into academics to help others achieve their career and life goals. After a lot of thought and prayer, I decided to take the plunge and pursue my Ph.D. The only thing left to do was break the news to the partners at this firm.

Telling a company you’re leaving is not an easy thing. Especially, when you’ve become so close to everyone. I was making my rounds telling all the Partners, and there were a couple who flat out asked me if I was sure I wanted to leave to pursue a Ph.D. One of them proceeded to ask if I was sure I wanted to give up the opportunity to earn Partner level income within 10 years down the road. For those that aren’t familiar with pay structure at Big-4 firms, it’s not uncommon for Partners to make $500,000+ per year. So, by leaving this firm as a Manager, I was walking away from a great opportunity to become Partner and ultimately make a $500,000+ salary.

Why I Turned Down the Opportunity For Such a Large Salary?

When the partner asked me that question, I was a little stunned to be honest. I didn’t anticipate being asked that, but I had already had that internal debate with myself. I respectively told the Partner that I was sure and that I just knew my calling was to teach at the college level in an effort to help others reach their goals.

Making a decision like that is extremely hard, and I’m not sure whether I would have had the courage to do so if I hadn’t had a mentor that pursued passion over money. My grandfather turned down a HUGE job in his late 20’s that was offering a lot of money and promise.

My grandfather actually accepted that job, but didn’t have to start until four months later. After going back home and continuing his small town job that had great work life balance, he later retracted his acceptance and decided to keep working his job that allowed him time in the evenings to pursue his passions outside of work and be close to family. This is a perfect example of somebody who engineered their life. Life didn’t engineer him. He took control, and made sure he was going to live the life he wanted to live. He wasn’t going to let a high earnings opportunity keep him from his passions and dreams.

What Amount of Salary is Enough?

I know that when you’re not making very much and you can only save a little, if anything, it’s easy to say you want to make a large salary. I get it, and I think we’ve all been there. The interesting thing is that when you begin to really climb the income ladder, there is a point where every additional dollar does not significantly increase happiness.

It’s a strange thing, but trust me that it’s true. Now, I consider myself to be a very happy guy, regardless. I’ve never wanted anything fancy, but I do want security for my family, and that takes some degree of wealth building.

There have been studies that show $75,000 is the point at which additional income will not make you any happier. I’d have to agree. My degree of happiness has not changed as a result of my income significantly increasing above that amount. I’m just as happy as I was earning $75,000, which is pretty darn happy.

I make great money doing what I do as a professor, and I honestly have no clue what use I would have for a $500,000 salary. I would likely find myself giving the majority of it away. I can afford expensive clothes with my current salary, but I buy $49 Levi’s and shop for business clothes when they are 65% off plus an additional 40% at Dillards twice per year. My wife and I want a small home, and the ability to travel here and there, but nothing outlandish.

If I woke up tomorrow and made half a million dollars per year, I can tell you with 100% certainty that my lifestyle would not change. My feeling of security would, but my lifestyle and happiness would not. That’s because I know what truly matters in life, and having the ability to buy tons of crap is not one of them.

Did I like the Career I was Turning Down?

I think being a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an incredible career track. There are so many incredible opportunities as a CPA, and I found the work to be very interesting. I always tell people who ask, there was not one day the entire time I worked for that public accounting firm that I got up and didn’t want to go to work. Meaning, I genuinely enjoyed the job.

I could have kept climbing the ladder at that firm and eventually made my way to Partner. The opportunity was right there in front of me, because of my hard work to that point. Nobody is going to hand you anything at a large public accounting firm. You’re going to have to work hard for it, and that’s what made it so hard to walk away from.

For me personally, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked what I was doing. It was a question of whether I was going to take a risk and explore my long-time desire to enter into academics to help others. In the classroom, I would still very much draw on my experiences at the large accounting firm, but for purposes of helping students broaden their understanding of accounting.

What Made My Decision to Leave My Job a Little Easier?

The number one driver for me was to be able to help people on a daily basis, and that is literally what I do. It’s the most amazing feeling, and I’m very blessed to have that opportunity to make such a positive impact. Something I’ve noticed since being in academics is how people with decades of success outside of academics still feel a burning desire to teach and help others. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that have achieved extreme financial success, but still feel there is this missing piece in their life. That missing piece being teaching and helping others achieve success.

Were Student Loans Going to Be Required to Make the Career Change?

My pursuit of this dream career was going to require extra schooling. I needed a Ph.D. to have a serious career in academics. That said, we all know how crushing student loan debt can be, and I can’t stand debt. Luckily, most Universities that offer Accounting Ph.D.’s actually pay you to pursue the degree via a small monthly stipend and full tuition waivers. That’s right, the only thing I had to pay for were my semester fees, which were typically $1,000/semester.

It felt amazing to get that degree and not owe a dime toward student loans.

Was there an Opportunity Cost to Making the Career Change?

Now, of course there was opportunity cost at play. My monthly stipend was around $1,500, but my earnings potential in the market as a CPA was approximately $7,500/month. That said, I was giving up about $6,000/month or $72,000 per year. Over a three-year period of time that equates to $216,000, and honestly is probably a bit more, because I typically received 10% annual salary increases in public accounting, and those are not considered in that calculation.

Here is the kicker though. The Accounting academic world is only meeting 20% of the demand for professors. That’s a stat I read a while back and I’m just assuming that number still holds true based on what I’m seeing with the current market.

So, the demand for my skill set is extremely high right now. When there is extremely high demand, the pay is always going to be extremely good. That holds true for every profession.

Even though my blog is about finances, I don’t like to talk about my salary as a professor. However, I consider myself extremely blessed and fortunate to be doing what I love, and I know I’m lucky to be in a field that pays very well at the moment. The financial stability of my job as an accounting professor made my decision to leave, and incur those opportunity costs, much easier. I will say that.

You Must Ask Yourself How Your Career Move Will Impact Your Family Life

I’m all about family. I believe quality relationships with family and friends is one of the core pillars of life and should be a major factor in all career move decisions. There is actually scientific evidence of this via the Harvard Happiness Study.

Along those same lines, I’m also all about engineering your life to maximize your time for what matters most to you. Now, there are people out there that will tell you their sole goal in life is to become rich. I’ve had multiple people in the corporate world tell me that straight to my face. To those people, I pray they stumble across the Harvard Happiness Study or just go talk to any old person, because that’s not what you want to be chasing.

For me, I want to maximize the amount of positive impact my career has on people and the time I’m going to have with my family and close friends. Especially, my wife and future kids. I want to know that I’m going to be home at 5pm every night for dinner with them. I want to know that I’m not going to have to travel 50% of the year. I want to truly be there for my family day in and day out every single week.

There are absolutely jobs as a CPA that can give you that, but nothing compares to the work life balance of a professor. I know without a doubt that I’ll be able to be there for my family every day whether it’s for dinner, a game, or a dance recital. I’ll be there for all of it.

Should Stress Impact Your Career Move Decision?

There is no avoiding stress in the corporate world. Especially, as a public accountant. Deadlines are life, and you always feel like it’s a race against the clock.

There are people who can handle stress much better than others. I like to think I have a pretty strong grasp on it, but even I could really feel the stress at times during my accounting firm days. When you’re in it and dealing with it on a day to day basis, it has the potential to creep into your personal life if you’re not careful.

There is certainly stress in the academic profession, but it’s much different than corporate stress. I talked to a lot of professors before making the career move, and I recommend you talk to a few people who do what you’re looking into doing. You’ll be able to get a gauge for what type of stress they are dealing with, and if it’s something you’ll be able to manage well.

For example, while working at the public accounting firm, I ran multiple jobs and sometimes those jobs would even overlap each other. I had full teams of staff working under me, and I was responsible for getting the job done. In academics, I don’t run teams of people anymore. So, that type of stress is completely eliminated from my life.

However, I do now have stress that comes along with the publication process. To keep my job, I have to publish and it’s a rather challenging process. I had upfront conversations with professors to understand what the publication process was like, and I got a sense for how well I could manage that type of stress.

Bottom line, know the stress levels you’re signing up for and giving up. Make sure you understand your ability to manage those stresses well and keep them out of your personal life. That should help inform your decision.

Will I Regret Not Taking the Job Opportunity to Become Partner?

No, I won’t regret making the career move. I did my homework before making the career change, and I’m extremely happy with what I’m doing. Yes, I could have been happy staying on the path to Partner or CFO, but I never think about it, because I love what I’m doing so much.

When you love what you do and you’re earning plenty for purposes of building financial security, you’re in a blessed and wonderful position in life. I’ve asked the Lord to guide me in life and I thank him every day for the path he’s put me on and what he’s provided. Literally, every single night I express my appreciation. There are no regrets here.

What Is My Advice to You If You Are Considering a Career Move?

First off, let’s hear about it in the comments. Second, I’d advise bookmarking my website so you can read all future posts related to this topic and much more.

In all seriousness, I’d tell you to really think things through and don’t make a decision based on money. I know a guy right now who is basing all his career and life decisions on money, and he’s miserable. He thinks chasing an extreme income is going to make him happy, but life is passing him by and I fear he’ll wake up in 10 years and realize his mistake after it’s too late. Don’t be that guy.

This entire post is about being able to have the courage to say no to the corporate incentives and pursue your dreams even if they are in fields of less pay such as education. That said, I’d advise you to remain rational in your decision making. I can tell you that I also had a passion for golf. I achieved marginal success in my amateur career by playing division I golf. Not a chance on God’s green earth would I pursue that passion. I know I’d make less than $15,000/year at best, and that doesn’t provide my family any security. I tell you that so you don’t take my advice out of context and to the extreme. Be self-aware and realistic with your choices.

Thank you to all the loyal Wallet Wit blog readers! I hope you share what you like and come back to read my other articles.